For Back to the Roots, mission to 'undo food' starts with cereal

by Monica Watrous
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Back to the Roots organic cereal
Back to the Roots offers Organic Stoneground Flakes cereal in four varieties.

BALTIMORE — Back to the Roots, an Oakland, Calif., maker of organic breakfast cereal, has trademarked the phrase “Undo Food.” Here’s what that means.

Nikhil Arora, Back to the Roots
Nikhil Arora, co-founder of Back to the Roots

“That’s become our call to action and our mission and mantra internally,” said Nikhil Arora, co-founder of Back to the Roots. “It comes down to transparency and simplicity… The way we articulate this on the packaging is ‘just three ingredients.’ We put our recipe on the box, and I can’t tell you how many folks in the industry tell us we’re crazy.”

The company has a lot of support from the industry, too. Earlier this year, Back to the Roots expanded its crowdfunding campaign on CircleUp into a $10 million Series A funding, led by Acre Venture Partners, the venture capital arm of the Campbell Soup Co.

The brand currently offers Organic Stoneground Flakes cereal, made with three or four ingredients, in four varieties, including California Whole Wheat, Cocoa Clusters, Purple Corn and, its newest addition, Biodynamic Cinnamon Clusters, which Back to the Roots highlighted at Natural Products Expo East, held Sept. 21-24 in Baltimore. The cereal is certified biodynamic, meaning the ingredients are grown using regenerative agriculture, which restores the farmland and results in superior flavor and nutrition, according to the company.

Back to the Roots Biodynamic Cinnamon Clusters cereal
Back to the Roots highlighted its new Biodynamic Cinnamon Clusters cereal at Natural Products Expo East.

“A lot of our brand is built on this idea of knowing where your food comes from and working directly with farmers,” Mr. Arora told Food Business News. “The deeper we got into farming and learning how food grows, we learned about how biodynamic is really the gold standard for sustainable farming because it’s all about a close-looped system. You’re combining animals and plants using on-site composting and no outside inputs.”

Back to the Roots was founded in 2009 by Mr. Arora and his college classmate Alejandro Velez, who declined their corporate job offers to launch and sell organic mushroom kits. The brand since has expanded its range of ready-to-grow products with similar items, including the newest launch, a self-watering tomato planter.

Back to the Roots self-watering tomato planter
Back to the Roots' newest ready-to-grow launch is a self-watering tomato planter.

The decision to expand into breakfast cereal aligned with Back to the Roots’ mission to reconnect families with food.

“With the ready-to-grow products, our biggest feedback and what inspires our team is the connection that they can help make with families and especially kids on where their food comes from,” Mr. Arora said. “If you look at the cereal category, it’s a $10 billion industry. It’s been declining, but it’s still massive… I think we can put a lens of simplicity on it in undoing food, and that for us was 100% stoneground, single-origin, three or four ingredients with the recipe on the box. The same radical transparency when you grow your own food. Cereal was so desperately in need of that.”

The brand also saw an opportunity to bring better packaging to the category.

Back to the Roots recipe on cereal box
Back to the Roots displays its cereal recipe on the box.

“We saw this category, this huge, massive 100-year-old category, and one of few categories that hasn’t really changed how it has been offered to consumers,” Mr. Arora said. “It’s the same unrecyclable, hard-to-open, hard-to-pour bag in a box, and we just started asking, ‘How else can this be done?’”

After extensive shelf-life testing and research and development, the company landed on packaging its cereal in recyclable cartons, which use 24% less material and have a much higher fill rate than conventional cereals, Mr. Arora said. And in true Back to the Roots fashion, “we also put the recipe for our packaging, like the exact amount of ink and paper and the poly lining used to create that carton,” Mr. Arora said.

In the short term, the company is laser-focused on cereal, specifically, on becoming the top organic brand in retailers and schools. Longer term, Mr. Arora believes the brand can expand its vision of radical transparency to every category in the grocery store.

Back to the Roots purple corn flakes cereal
Back to the Roots works directly with farmers and places an infographic on its packaging so consumers know where their food came from.

“The question we ask ourselves a lot is, ‘What would a Kraft Foods look like if it was started today with this lens of radical transparency and by millennials and for millennials?’” he said. “I think that’s the opportunity we have, to build that kind of company…This isn’t a company that we’re going to grow for two years and sell to some big C.P.G. company. How can we build a brand that outlasts and outlives all of us and have the same impact on our food and supply chain as some of those guys did?

“That’s what inspires us, that we can walk down a grocery store … for every category, how can we make packaging more sustainable, the branding more authentic and expressing our values? The main thing is the ingredients and really focusing on this idea of radical transparency and simplicity. There’s a lot ahead of us.” 
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